Forage for DIY Soaps and Woods-to-Table Dinners on Your Next Fall Trip

Embrace autumn with workshops and tips from the experts.

You’d think it’d be easy to spot long, green leaves in the desert. Turns out finding yucca plants is actually quite the task. I walk over blue hills and up mounds of sand, looking around small cacti and shrubs of grass until I finally spot the pointy, waxy plant firmly rooted in the ground. After digging out the root, my grandmother and I bring the foraged goods to our hogan.

Later that afternoon, my grandmother removes the outer layer of the root and smashes it between rocks to bring the táláwosh out. Táláwosh is a sudsy substance that oozes out of the fibers and, when mixed with water, is a natural cleanser that leaves skin and hair silky clean. She then uses this yucca to wash my hair. Our people have been foraging this way for thousands of years.

Woman foraging in the woods

Growing up on the Navajo Nation, I learned to forage before I even knew the word for it. It was a natural part of my everyday life to gather not only yucca, but also Nanits'eeh (Navajo tea); piñon, which are nutritious nuts; willow, which can be used as a medicinal aspirin; and sage for traditional practices. I learned very young that Mother Earth provides, and she needs protection and to be shown respect. Everything we foraged, we found use for and tried not to waste anything.

As I've grown older, these days it's easy to just look outside and see only grass, flowers, and trees. But those who forage regularly see probably 20 other plants amid the ordinary hills and a wealth of uses at their feet that are so often overlooked. There's a whole connection to our surroundings that's all too easy to miss. But foraging is something anyone can learn—and more people are starting to.

Foraging is highly location-dependent, which is why it can be fun to learn about foraging in new lands when you travel, whether that’s to cool woods or hot deserts.

As locals and travelers alike are gaining an interest in foraging and seeking out workshops, they're realizing there's a whole new connection to be had with the lands we visit. It's also a fascinating skill to take home with you and share with others.

“When you discover new types of mushrooms or new plants, there’s a release of dopamine,” says John Sanders, a physician who forages and has studied many types of mushrooms. “Half of our brain is in data-collection mode, making note of details surrounding the mushrooms, making us more aware of our surroundings.” And he’s not the only one to realize this.

people at mushroom workshop
Photo by Winter Caplanson, courtesy of Seed and Spoon

“Foraging connects you with your surroundings, much like mycelium connects everything and its surroundings,” says Rana Justice, a horticulturalist who leads foraging workshops at Seed and Spoon and Husky Meadows in Connecticut. At Seed and Spoon, visitors can participate in what Justice calls “woods to table,” where any gathered food goes to the chef to be turned into your dinner that evening. The workshop starts with a demonstration, then the group romps out into the woods to see what they can find. Anything you forage, you get to keep, whether you eat it there, later at home, or in the chef-cooked dinner that night.

Justice teaches guests what weather and trees will tell you about mushrooms, what tools to have, how valleys and mountains change things, and how to identify using shape, color, and texture. Foraging is highly location-dependent, which is why it can be fun to learn about foraging in new lands when you travel, whether that’s to cool woods or hot deserts.

Beuna Tomalino is another horticulturist who owns Basil & Rose, a garden store in Bountiful, Utah. “There are an estimated 20,000 edible plants in the world,” she says. Tomalino offers a 2-to-3-hour herb walk experience where she teaches about plants along the trails. On any given walk, she says, “It’s not unusual to find 30 to 40 plants.”

person holding harvested plant
Fertnig/E+/Getty Images

In guided workshops like at Seed and Spoon or Basil & Rose, newcomers can try their hand at foraging with the confidence that findings will be edible and safe to consume. “Never eat anything unless you are 100% sure you know what it is,” says Justice. That’s what she and Tomalino are there for, to help guard against upset stomachs, food poisoning, and of course possible fatality if you eat something out in the wild you’re really not supposed to.

“I don’t forage for anything, unless I'm sure that it’s okay to eat,” says Steve Jenkins from Montana. “There are some steps I take in making sure that everything's safe: read about it, find pictures, and I have to confirm what I see in the outdoors as edible and not poisonous.” He pays attention to his body if he tries something new and even suggests carrying an EpiPen and Benadryl.

Justice agrees, recommending trying a small amount first to see how your body reacts. She suggests using multiple resources like foraging apps, Facebook groups, or iNaturalist—then once you gain that knowledge, the woods are your oyster mushroom.

Justice recommends starting with a workshop like hers or even just figuring out what’s in your own backyard. She says once you identify what’s edible, you’ll start seeing it everywhere, gain the confidence in foraging, and maybe even build a desire to learn more. “I started with plants and herbs, especially when the pandemic hit and I didn't want to go to a grocery store. I was just like, ‘All right, what's in my yard that I could eat?’ and making a stir fry with it.”

person harvesting plant in forest
Alex Ratson/Moment/Getty Images

Tomalino also advises beginners, “Learn the plants, learn to identify them, and concentrate on about three different plants. Get familiar with that and then expand from there.” She recommends purslane, roses, and dandelions to start off with.

But foraging isn’t just about eating. Stephanie Mitchell, owner of Mod-Sani, also learned from her grandmother on the Navajo Nation. Now she has a business creating natural products through foraging, such as salves, oils, and serums. In this way, she makes natural and safer products. Mitchell says she’s “blending two worlds into one” with tradition and modernism. She also enjoys “showing the younger generation that it’s okay to be traditional and make it your own.”

Mitchell explains different tips to keep in mind when foraging. “With Navajo tea, you have to break off the stem so that it can grow again for the next season. With the sage, we only take the pedals off, we don’t break the stem. Same with the cedar, you have to be gentle with it. I was taught to act like I was shaking its hand and pull off whatever it gives you.”

When it comes to learning how to forage, do the research. Consider the area, nearby water with possible toxins, any potential pesticides, and local foraging laws. Don’t start picking and eating whatever you see, but talk to those who know, whether that’s a local forager, a Facebook group, or a foraging book. And remember to rinse off the plants well. No matter how you decide to forage, make sure to take in the landscape. At the end of the day, as Mitchell explains, “It’s just a matter of respect for the herbs and respect for what you’re doing.”

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Ashley Franklin, Diné, is Hashk’ąąn Hadzohí (Yucca Fruit Strung Out) and born for Táchii’nii (Red Running Into the Water). She is a writer for Thrillist.