Autumn in Missouri means lurid orange leaves. The hints of winter blow in on every cold front. The Missouri River floodplain changes colors, too. A cacophony of waterfowl begins their annual migration, the evening sky swollen with their silhouettes. Fall is also an ideal time to forage.
Kansas City is a hidden gem for foragers. Missouri has over 2.5 million acres of public land to be explored and the KC metro is rich with outdoor recreation opportunities. We’ll look at a few easy-to-identify wild treats, places to forage, and what rules and ethics you need to know before harvesting food from the wild.
The Rules of Foraging
There are rules surrounding the gathering of wild plants, but don’t curb your enthusiasm for foraging! The first thing you need to know is that it is generally illegal to sell any wild plant, fruit, or mushroom taken from public lands. Public lands include municipal and county parks, Missouri Department of Conservation areas, Forest Service land, and State Parks.
Typically, Missouri Department of Conservation areas allow the collection of wild fruit, nuts, and mushrooms for personal consumption, but make sure to go to mdc.mo.gov and look up the conservation area in question. Many municipal and county parks have similar rules, which allow you to take wild fruit and nuts for yourself.
Missouri State Parks often prohibit the taking of wild plants except for wild mushrooms, so make sure you look at the rules for any park you plan on traveling to before you go! Forest Service land and National Parks may require a free foraging permit to gather wild plants. Take the time to understand the local regulations surrounding foraging before you head out into the woods.
Fall is prime time to collect two of Missouri’s most iconic wild foods — persimmons and black walnuts. Both are easy to identify and delicious.
There are a few things you’ll need to take with you. First and foremost is a good pair of hiking boots or shoes. Ideally, they should cover your ankles since foraging typically takes you over rough terrain. Wear long pants, socks, and a hat, and for black walnuts, a pair of garden gloves that you don’t mind getting dirty. Also, you’ll need something to carry your wild treasure in.
Persimmons grow in dry, rocky areas, the edges of fields and trails, as well as in bottomlands, beside streams, and by lakes. Persimmons are most common south of the Missouri river in the KC region, but you won’t have to travel far to find them. Trails in upland woods or old field edges are a great place to start looking.
Their distinctive fruit is ping pong ball-sized, and a mixture of orange, red, and yellow hues. The fruit has four woody petals at the top where it connects to the tree stems. More mature trees have dark, deeply-ridged bark like alligator skin. Younger trees sometimes don’t have this distinct characteristic. Thankfully, persimmons shed their leaves early and are often loaded with fruit. You might even get bonked on the head by one while picking! They ripen in October, but their fruit can be found as late as November.
Knowing when the fruit is ripe takes some practice. Unripe persimmons have a highly tannic flavor, which gives you a cottonmouth sensation you won’t want to repeat.
Persimmons are ripe when they are soft to the touch and the petals can be easily peeled off the top. If the skin cracks when you press a fruit, it’s most likely ripe. Though it’s not foolproof, a frost or other cold weather can be a good indication of when the fruits are ripe. While persimmons do ripen off the tree, I often find they don’t develop as much sweetness or depth of flavor as those ripened on the tree.
To collect them, shake the tree and pick up the fruits that have fallen off or pick those that are within reach. Bring a bucket, but don’t stack persimmons too high. They’ll easily squish underneath their own weight if you overfill your container.
I first discovered black walnut while fishing the Blue River here in Kansas City. They are native to Missouri, with delicious nut meat, high-quality wood, outer husks that can be used as organic fertilizer, and a natural dye, and their nutshells can be used as an industrial abrasive.
You won’t have to look far to find a black walnut tree. They grow in a variety of soils, including open meadows, alongside rivers, in the woods, and on the edges of fields. The distinctive nuts have green outer husks that decay into a brown color and have a spicy, almost boozy smell. Inside the husk, the nut is covered in a dark, tough shell.
Bring a large bucket with a handle and gloves. The husks contain a natural pigment that will stain your hands for weeks and clothes permanently.
To remove the husks, break them off by hand or with a hammer and rinse them thoroughly. Spread the washed walnuts on a large screen for a few days to allow them to dry. Dried walnuts will last a few years in a cool, dry place.
To crack them, use a hammer or vise grip. Most nutcrackers are not up to the task of breaking into the strong shells of black walnuts. To remove the meat, use a nut picker or a small crochet needle. The meat can be roasted and frozen or brined in salt, then dehydrated for preservation. They go great in nut breads, salads, even in meat dishes.
A bonus tip: If you gather black walnuts in the early summer before they ripen, you can age them in vodka or other neutral spirits for a few months to get a spicy liqueur called nocino that you can use as the secret ingredient in cocktails and baked goods.
The Ethics of Foraging
While it’s exciting to harvest wild food, wildlife depend on the same fruit and nuts that humans enjoy. Urban parks receive a ton of visitors, so it’s safe to say that if you are planning on harvesting wild food, someone else is as well. It’s a good practice to leave behind some of the bounties for wildlife and other foragers!
Never post specific locations where you harvest wild foods on social media. Putting specific locations can cause “spot burn,” which is overharvesting and habitat destruction due to over-exposure. Tag your foraging posts with state-level hashtags like #Missouri, #foraging, or #KansasCity.
Remember to share the space with other recreationists. Fall is the start of deer archery and waterfowl season. In late October and November, consider foraging in areas where hunting is not allowed — close to parking lots, and on trails that do not receive heavy hunting pressure.
If you see other foragers, cyclists, or hikers, smile and say hello! They are there to relax, experience nature and escape from the stresses of their day-to-day life. Cultivating a friendly atmosphere on public land goes a long way in making outdoor recreation a positive experience for everyone. Don’t forget to share your wild food with friends and family to help inspire in them a love for wild spaces!
For more tips on foraging and wildlife in the area, check out Gilbert's blog, thenerdventure.wordpress.com or follow him on Instagram @gilbertwriting. For more wild plant info, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation’s field guide at https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide.