If you’re thinking about foraging, it’s important to do so mindfully.

Foraging with Nan Cole in calendula field

Thomas J. Story

When Nan Cole stops to point out the brown nuts you can pick—and then eat—off a California bay laurel tree, and hands me a few pre-roasted ones she’s brought along, I’m not prepared for the flavors of cacao and coffee that explode in my mouth. These small morsels can be found in abundance throughout nearby coastal forests.

“This,” Cole says, is “something you would forage.”

California Laurel Tree brown nuts

Thomas J. Story

The San Luis Obispo guide, who leads these excursions at Alila Ventana Big Sur off the California coast, identifies plants on the trail like she’s reading words off a page—calendula, poison hemlock, hedge nettle.

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Foraging allows her to “see the same place with new eyes,” Cole says. And, when appropriate, she gathers some material, like the nuts she takes home and then roasts with olive oil and sea salt—which she harvests herself.

Foraging with Nan Cole

Thomas J. Story

Try your hand at this meditative practice, and you can start to form an intimacy with plants, Cole adds. Foraging “creates a kind of stakeholdership,” she says, that helps create “a desire to protect land.”

As we wind our way up and down Ventana’s expansive oasis, Cole offers insight into the do’s and don’t’s.

DO: Go with a pro.

Ideally, you’ll head out with a forager like Cole, who is a trained expert in plant identification. She understands the art of the grazing method: allowing nature to dictate what she picks. “Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you pick it,” Cole says.

DON’T: Have a grocery store mentality.

“Pick a little from one bush, and then pick a little from another,” says Cole, who tries to forage so that if someone else passed by the area, they wouldn’t know it had been touched. “And we want to leave some for wildlife that might also enjoy.”

DO: Download the App iNaturalist.

You can contribute to citizen science by documenting your finds on this app, an initiative from the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. Alternatively, make friends with a local expert who you can send photos to, for confirmation that you have positively identified a plant or fungi. Cole’s Instagram is @foragerslo. “I am always happy to look at photos of mystery plants/fungi,” she says.

DON’T: Expect to always come back with plants.

“It’s not just about finding the cool foraged items,” Cole says. Get to know the plants, observe their life cycles, and take the time to see how they’re impacted by drought and habitat.

Foraged orange calendula
Rightly legendary for its luxe-meets-wild vibes above the coast, Ventana Big Sur also offers signature activities such as sound baths and astronomy that channel the region’s boho history, plus the option of canvas glamping tents for $240 a night.

Thomas J. Story