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Well Wisconsin Radio

Well Wisconsin Radio

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A podcast discussing topics of health and well-being from experts around the State of Wisconsin. Tune into Well Wisconsin Radio whenever you want and wherever you are! Subscribe to Well Wisconsin Radio in the podcast platform of your choice to be notified when each new episode is released.

Note to those eligible for the 2024 Well Wisconsin Incentive: only episodes of Well Wisconsin Radio from season 3, dated November 2023 and later will qualify for well-being activity credit.


Foraging for Natural Foods with Vince Aiello and Meredith Rhodes 

The information in this podcast does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should not be used as a substitute for healthcare from a licensed healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare provider for individualized treatment or before beginning any new program.  

Host: Hello and welcome to Well Wisconsin Radio, a podcast discussing health and wellbeing topics with experts from all around the state of Wisconsin. Thank you for joining us for this special onsite podcast event. I’m your host, Julie Cruz, and today my guests are Vince Aiello and Meredith Rhodes. Vince is the owner of Fire and Foraging, a local nature-based business. He’s been learning traditional skills in wild plants of Wisconsin for the past 20 years and sharing his knowledge with others for the past eight years. Meredith is trained as a geologist and currently works for the UW Clinical Trials Institute. She has an interest in evolutionary health, questioning how the difference between our modern environment and the forces that shaped our species affect our health.  Vince has mentored her in wild plants and foraging for the past eight years. And both Vince and Meredith have studied herbalism at the Wildwood Institute. Thank you both for joining us today.   

Vince, we’re going to get started with you and start our conversation off by telling us a little bit about foraging. Tell us about what it is and what plants are the easiest to forage for in Wisconsin.  

Guest 1: Sure. Thanks, Julie. First, I’d like to say thank you for the privilege of being on this podcast.  Yeah, we’ll start with forging. I’ll give a definition of what I think forging is.  I think foraging is the continuation of your ancestral lineage of collecting plants from your environment.  

A lot of people would think of it as just collecting plants, but it’s actually a continuation of a lineage. And as far as what plants are easiest to forage, that’s kind of subjective. Like, once you know a plant, they’re all easy, right? But the easiest ones probably to learn and start would be the ones in your very yard. 

And the spring is probably the best, just, you could start with simple things like dandelions and violets.  So, the yard is the simplest and best place to start for plants.  

Host: Great. So that means that we could all do that at our own homes then and get started with foraging right in our own backyards. That’s fantastic. 

Meredith, um, why would you want to forage for natural foods? Can you tell us a little bit about what the benefits are and how does foraging impact our health and wellbeing? 

Guest 2: This is a huge question, so you’re going to have to stop me.  Um, Vince found me, actually, eight years ago. Um, I was, uh, working as a health coach, and I was studying, um, evolutionary health at the time, and the, the one missing piece from my study was that connection to the land. 

Um, and just like Vince said, the, the ancestral connection, or your, um, your ancestors, maybe yourselves, but like, generations ago, before industrial foods, before the grocery stores, they lived off the land, and our, for tens of thousands of years, our species was informed and shaped by the land. And we used to have a very intimate connection to it. 

And many people around the world today, uh, continue to. We’ve lost a lot of that in our, uh, modern lives, um, and it helps to remember that we are nature and, uh, we’re part of it and we should perhaps interact with it to understand more, uh, about our world and our own health. Um, I think the, the benefits of foraging natural foods are endless, in my opinion. 

Um, it’s a huge diversity of, uh, nutrients. Uh, the vegetables we get in our grocery stores today are largely mustard family vegetables. Um, your broccoli, your cauliflower, your kale, your Brussels sprouts. They’ve all just been hybridized, or cross bred to, to enhance a specific part of the plant. Um, we have a ton of wild mustards around us, some of them very invasive, uh, and all of them edible, once you identify a mustard plant.  

Um, and I think that, there’s a lot of unknown benefits to eating those plants as well because there’s a lot of, there’s a lot that comes with its um, its freshness, its, its uh, connection to the land and all the information it receives to grow. Um, we, when we chop that down and put it in a grocery store, we lose a lot of that sort of life energy, I guess, um, um, in transit to the store. 

Um, and I think the act of foraging in and of itself is, well, you have to move, you have to get outside in the sun, get some fresh air. Um, you’re oftentimes with other people in community. There’s a holistic health aspect to foraging and it becomes, um, it’s, it’s like a scavenger hunt when you start to really connect with different plants throughout the year because some plants only uh, are forageable for two, two weeks out of the year. And so, you’re, you’re ready to, you know, its Solomon’s seal season, and it’s gonna be gone before you know it. So, you have to go out and find it. You have to meet it where it’s at.   

Um, and it just, from that connection of being out, uh, noticing the plant, I remember that I was a, my whole first year studying plants with Vince, we were out at least once a week, if not more, visiting the same plants over the year. So, you could see how they grow and change throughout the year, and it was really a meditation as well. So, you’re kind of, um, it’s all these side effects of foraging that, um, are kind of your unintended consequence of pursuing this, this, uh, fun hobby, uh, kept me sane over the pandemic. I’ll tell you like the safest place to be was outside in the sun, walking around in nature. 


And, um, um, I’m really thankful to have made that connection earlier.  

Host: Yeah. Great. Thank you. That is a lot of benefits that, a lot of them that you might have thought about before today or maybe just are thinking about for the first time, right? So, thank you, Meredith. Um, Vince, you kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier, but, um, about the seasons. So, can you tell us a little bit about when is the best time or what’s the best season to forage for natural foods in Wisconsin and just curious, can you forage during all four seasons in the state?   

Guest 1: Sure, when it comes to foraging by far spring is the best. There’s numerous, numerous greens coming up for a week and a half two weeks and it’s just from one food source to another but there is something to forage all year long. 

The winter is very, can be very slim, but even in the winter, you could go out and find evening-primrose stalks and shake out the seeds. And those were baked with, and they’re high in omega threes. You could collect seeds off of curly dock and those can be used. There’s a couple of mushrooms that come out in the winter. 

You could, if you’re further to the north, you could find Chaga in the winter and make tea and process that for herbal, herbal preparations, but yeah, probably from, in this area, April to November would be very, very productive for foraging.  

Host: Okay. Great. Thank you. Meredith, um, can you tell us a little bit about where we can forage in Wisconsin? And do you have any favorite spots that that you’ve foraged at throughout the state?  

Guest 2: Yeah, um, in Wisconsin, we can forage at county parks. And so, find your local county park, and its fair game. Um, if you are in an arboretum, uh, preserve, conservation park, those are not places that we’re invited to forage. 

You can forage, of course, on any land you have access to that you have permission to. Um, I, um, I, I’m going to have a shout out to Vitruvian Farm. I do a shift there every week for my vegetables. And, uh, and it’s a, that’s a place that I’m invited to forage. Uh, and they have good wild lands to do that.  So, I, you know, make some friends. Uh, get some, get access to some, some land. Um, and use it.  

I also really like foraging in my yard, and one of the things I have, I just don’t have a green thumb, and that’s another bonus to foraging, because it grows naturally. Uh, then I’m going to benefit from that. Uh, so I’ve done a lot of transplanting into my yard. Things that people tend to want to evict from their yard. Uh, nettles I now have in my yard. Um, I’ve moved sage and mugwort into my yard, um, Mullein. Um, I don’t know, Vince plants things in my yard all the time too. We experiment, um, bringing things in, and then I can, you know, see if they grow where I put them, and, uh, thankfully a number of them have, uh, been thriving. 


And so, um, I, uh, make a lot of nettle tea now, and a lot of, um, oh my gosh, my yard is full of violets, um, and those are just amazing, um, in many ways, and I hope we’ll find some here too, today. Um, yeah, what’s the, I think I got the, yeah, so I think my, the, my backyard would be my, probably my most frequented forage, uh, but um, we like to go to, um, Indian Lake County Park a lot, um, it’s got a, it’s got a vast, it’s very diverse, um, it has great spring greens, it has wonderful mushrooms in the fall, and it has some awesome barred owls that are always there to, to guide you through the trail, so it’s a beautiful place. 

Host: Nice. Thank you. And it sounds like you’re putting in your backyard what some other people are trying to take out of their backyards, right? So, things to think about as you’re thinking about forging in your own backyard. Thanks, Meredith. Um, Vince, what do we need to know to get started forging? For example, are there any basic guidelines, rules, ethical standards that we need to be aware of? 

Guest: Yeah. The one thing I would focus with is, a lot of foragers say, try to learn five to ten plants really well in one year. So, don’t try to learn everything in a year. So, it’s really that, and again, this is where if you have a place, you visit regularly, and you really want to see the plants through a whole growing season, because they can just change drastically. 

And as a general rule, you try not to harvest more than 30 percent of an environment. So, if you’re getting something, but there’s all kinds of differences in that too. So, if I see some of these invasive mustards, those you could ideally take as much as you could because they’re displacing native species. So, you’re actually benefiting, benefiting nature by doing that. 

And that’s another thing like people don’t realize if you just look at average woods today or forest or a park it would look great. It would always look healthy, but there’s kind of what they’ve termed a silent extinction going on. A lot of native species are being out competed by these invasive plants, so this is where we also have an effect on the land that we can go in, remove these things, feed ourselves with these highly nutritious plants, and help restore the forest at the same time.  

Host: Wow, so it’s really beneficial for the person doing the foraging, but also for the land and the area where you’re doing the foraging.  

Guest 1: For sure.  

Host: Nice. Nice. Thank you.  Meredith, what can you tell us about, um, any tools or equipment that we might need to get started to do foraging and, um, is there anything special that you need to wear while you’re foraging? 

Guest 2: There’s a really low entry point to foraging, because you really don’t need any special tools or equipment. There’s some nice to haves. Um, I brought with me a few things. Um, there’s a, just kind of like a mesh bag is super nice, particularly if you’re like foraging mushrooms. And, um, I have a walking stick that I brought. 

And the walking stick, um, is most useful when you’re mushroom hunting or if you’re going through kind of a thicker woods and you just need to help get the prickly ash out of the way so that you’re not poking yourself all over the place. Um, little clippers are nice or a knife. Um, but other than that, um, I guess, you know, if you’re going for burdock root or something like that, maybe a shovel, uh, would be useful, but really to, to get started, um, you just, you need zero equipment. You need just all the interest and curiosity.  

Um, special things to wear while foraging is, is that’s a certainly an individual thing, um, I push the boundaries and often wear just sandals and, you know, go into the woods and get scraped up and, uh, and then I learn, uh, it takes me a little bit to learn sometimes. But, um, I know now enough about where I’m going to head out, uh, as to what I should, should wear. 

Um, I literally went to Farm and Fleet and got a ten-dollar pair of rubber boots to wear out in the woods. Um, for when it’s nice and wet out. Um, I have, I typically will wear longer pants. Um, because this year in particular is super ticks. Like there’s a lot of ticks. Um, you don’t have to wear tick clothing. If you’re very, very conscious about checking, um, and you have a friend who is really comfortable checking you, uh, these are important things. 

Um, but definitely, uh, consider the insects. So, ticks and ticks are vicious right now. Um, Vince has had several already this year.  Um, so consider that for sure. Um, very individual, but, um, I guess know the terrain that you’re about to enter before you, uh, do that.  

Host: Okay. Sounds good. Thank you. Um, Vince, is there anything that we need to avoid while foraging? Are there any safety concerns that I need to know about?   

Guest 1: There are, um, plants that are toxic and even one or two that are deadly. So, the biggest thing on that would be really knowing, knowing your plants, know them very well. And, uh, a good plant guide or a good plant book, and they usually have, like, three to four distinctive characteristics that you need to properly identify. 

And as you do more foraging, you’ll learn botanical terms, and stuff like that really helps you hone in on the plant. Another thing that I kind of would add to that is when food is new in your diet, you probably should just eat a small amount the first time or two probably not so much with greens, but other things if you went to you know some other country and just started eating their food after you see the our food it might have an adverse effect. So, always start small when you’re not sure but proper identification is the key to that like really and again this goes with I think finding a spot that you can visit regularly, whether it’s your yard or a park, really look at those plants through a growing season, identify them, and just stop and study them, and like, how do I know that this is this plant? 

That’s how I learned them. I used to ride a bike trail system a lot in northern Wisconsin, and I would stop and look at the plants, and I would see them in flower, and I would study the leaf patterns, and, the color and the stalk and leaf arrangement, all that. Then the next year, I would identify them without the book. And then on the third year, I identified them when they’re like three inches tall. That’s when I knew I was learning my plants.   

Host: Now, I know you, you and Meredith brought some books with you today. Do any of those, would you recommend any of those books for identifying plants?  

Guest 1: Yeah, well, for sure. And that brings up another good point. So, there’s been an influx of books on foraging and plants recently, and they’re all AI generated with false information, just regurgitated other people’s information. On my website, I have a link to actual good quality books that are the books you would want to get.  

Host: Okay, great. Yeah. And I know, um, in our episode show notes, um, we list your website there as well, the fire and foraging. So, thank you. Thank you.  

Guest 2: Yeah. I would, uh, in particular recommend this book, um, Sam Thayer’s, Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America. It’s like, I think there’s 700 edible plants in here.  

Host: Oh, wow.  

Guest 2: And he, it’s, it’s just a wealth of knowledge. If you ever have the opportunity to take one of Sam’s walks and study with him, he’s up in, um, Central Wisconsin. He’s an amazing wealth of knowledge. Uh, another book that I recommend is called Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas Alpo. And this, this gives you sort of a, uh, an idea of how to identify a specific plant families. Um, in which case, like I said earlier, if you know what a mustard family plant is, you know, it’s safe to eat. 

So, there’s certain, um, larger, um, identifying characteristics of the plant families, and it’s a really great book for that. And this is a book, um, I think Vince gifted me, uh, but it’s a really great, um, book by Matthew Alves, Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Midwest. And it’s just, it’s really beautiful photos. Just really nice to, to look through and kind of, uh, to dream about.  Really nice book. Um, there’s another book, if you are really getting into foraging, um, and want to up your game with cooking, uh, Alan Bergo’s, um, it’s Flora? Is that what this book is called? Flora? Uh, look up the forager chef, Alan Bergo. 

Uh, he is also a wealth of information around, um, preparing foraged plants and identifying them. Um, we had the opportunity to, um, to forage with him last year, and he is also he’s also a wealth of information  

Host: Great. Thank you for sharing all that and Meredith that kind of leads right into our next question about what can we do with the plants once we’re done foraging and take them home? Can you share some examples with us about how you use plants that you find for your everyday foods?  

Guest 2: Yeah. There’s a few that I like for just to incorporate into salads. Um, and again, um, the violet is one of my favorites, um, to do that, and those are everywhere. The leaf and the flower, um, and it, the violet has a really nice, uh, um, like mucilaginous property, uh, so for herbal uses, if you were to dry Violets and use them in tea. It really nice and coats your throat. It’s nice soothing on your throat. So, I tend to make a lot of teas from the plants I collect.  

The other end of that spectrum is mushrooms. I love, I love collecting maitake mushrooms. They are this huge gift and you can share them with copious numbers of people because they’re so big. Um, and they’re just so, they’re so wonderful, uh, foraged from the land, um, and all of the mushroom, I just, any mushroom I get, I just sauté in butter. Like, that’s my go to. And I think that you can’t go wrong.  

Um, you should definitely cook any mushroom, uh, that you forage. Um, and of course, only forage it if you know what it is, like if you can identify it, that is, uh, that’s the number one rule of foraging. Um, get to know it, have a relationship with that plant first. And then once you’re confident, um, forage away.   

Host: Great. Thank you. Vince, we also have, um, some of our listeners have a little bit of foraging experience or maybe have been for, for a little while. Um, and so if they’ve done some basic foraging and would like to do more or learn more, what would you recommend, um, for next steps to increase their skills and their knowledge in foraging?  

Guest 1: I would, uh, recommend again, um, getting some of these good books by Sam Thayer or Alan Bergo or the ones we mentioned here or any that I list. Also, really spending time with the plants is, is crucial to learning them and understanding them. And, seeking out a mentor, if you can find one, and sometimes you have that in your family. 

Like I said, this is a lineage and kind of in a way, it’s a funny lineage. I brought books by, uh, this guy from the sixties named Euell Gibbons. Well, Sam Thayer talks about how that’s what he started with, so he was some of the first foraging books. So, and then if there wasn’t Euell Gibbons wouldn’t be Sam Thayer and if there wasn’t Sam Thayer I wouldn’t be here today. 

So, it’s kind of a lineage that way too. But really seeking out a mentor, spending time with the plants, really studying them, getting to know them. Taking the books and really studying the pictures like Sam Thayer’s books are excellent. He points out the plant then he points out similar look-alikes. You know point out the difference and when you’ve really studied the work that he’s put into them, it should be it should make you a confident forger, but really the best is mentorship. It’s the best way.  

Host: Great. 

Guest 2: Yeah, and I’ll add to that too because Vince has been my forging mentor for eight years or so and um, I’m definitely a person that needs to see somebody else do it and somebody else eat it. Um, and so Vince was that person for me and, and he was in town and he was literally looking for a foraging buddy at the time he had, he was just moved to town and lost a foraging buddy and found me as a willing partner. 

And, um, it was, even though he says, you know pick five plants to learn in a year that first year that we were out – 150 plants. I had this; I had my phone open the whole time I was taking notes from every plant. At the end of the year, I sent a list to Vince, and he was floored at how many plants we had visited that year. Other key things if you are getting into foraging, and I’ll share this awesome tip with you now, because I learned far too late, if you have a phone, you take a picture of that plant and then caption that picture with what it’s called. 

That way you can search for it, you can search for it in your photos, you can find it geographically where you were, there’s all sorts of great things that, um, I just took photos everywhere. And then later on, I’m like, oh, I can put captions on these, and I can like, search for this plant in my 40, 000 plant photos, you know, so do that now.  

That’s a key, key thing, uh, that our modern technology can help us with for sure. Um, yeah, so I definitely, um, I was definitely a person who wanted, needed that sort of apprenticeship approach to feel confident in this, um, and, uh, there are more and more ways to go about it, but that’s, that’s a really nice kind of also community driven way to do it.  

Host: Great. Thank you.  All right. Well, um, I have our last question for, um, our time together today. And, you know, we’re here out on site at Stewart Lake County Park, and we’re about to go out and start doing a little foraging. Um, and we’ve got people that’ll be listening to the podcast, and they might want to get started foraging soon. What are your kind of, I guess, last words of wisdom or tidbits for us before, um, we get started or continue on our foraging journeys?   

Guest 1: Um, I think knowing the plants very well, confidently identifying it, that would be the start. Yeah. 

Guest 2: Yeah. And, also, um, poison ivy. Is a really great one to understand and identify. Uh, and there’s a copious amount here. So, if you are unsure what it looks like, uh, we can show you and help you to, to figure that out. There are also look-alikes to poison ivy. And so, um, I remember learning, I am really sensitive to poison ivy and want to, you know, stay away from it. Um, young box elder trees look exactly like poison ivy. 

And I would avoid so many places because I thought I was going through this poison ivy field when it was just baby box elders. So, there’s a really easy way to know the difference. Um, so, so around here in a lot of the parks, you’ll see poison ivy just kind of off the trail or even as a tree, I’ve seen it as a tree. 

Host: Oh, wow.  

Guest 2: Like it’s a shrub. It’s a vine. It’s uh, it’s all over the place and it looks very different. It has a different it has a different vibe to it, but the leaf structure and, um, leaf arrangement are, are dead giveaways. So, um, you can do this.   

Host: Great. Thank you. And thank you for offering to take us and show us. 

Guest 2: Oh, absolutely.  

Host: Appreciate it. And I want to just thank you both so much for being here with us today and for, um, being the experts for our podcast. We really appreciate it. Thank you.  

Guest 2: Thank you.   

Host: As a Well Wisconsin participant, you have multiple resources available to help you as you head outside this time of year. 

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Coaching Participant: Um, the health coaching has been such a benefit to me, um, through my conversations with them, they’ve been able to, you know, give me feedback on things I’m doing and maybe some suggestions of things that I might want to try to get things, um, heading in an even better direction.  

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Host: WebMD Health Coaching connects you with a real person who cares about your wellbeing. Learn about coaching by calling 1 800 821 6591. You’ll get connected with the programs that will be most impactful for you.  

Thanks for listening today. I hope you enjoyed the show. You can find our survey in the Well Wisconsin portal and our transcripts in previous episodes at webmdhealthservices.com/wellwisconsinradio. If you’re listening to this podcast on your platform of choice, please be sure to subscribe so you’ll never miss an episode. 

Show Notes
Are you looking for a fun way to get out in nature, get moving, and nourish your body? Experience the natural world in a new way after listening to a recording from an onsite podcast interview and foraging walk at Stewart Lake County Park. Discover the benefits of foraging and what you need to know to get started.

Episode Show Notes:


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