I’m passionate about reclaiming wild plants and “weeds” as the important ancestral foods and medicines that they are, so I’m thrilled people are reconnecting with our oldest and most primal relationship with the earth – foraging. I’m also a little concerned. While books, courses, educational walks, online resources, websites on wildcrafting and foraging are proliferating, here in Victoria, as across North America, foraging is not permitted in parks whether urban, rural, municipal, provincial, or federal. Unless people are lucky (and privileged) enough to have a backyard, a friend with a few acres, or can drive to remote Crown lands with a permit to harvest – well, they don’t have many options.
While many park officials turn a blind eye to a little picking here and there, I’m worried that this tolerance could be put to the test. Take what is happening in the UK. Under common law, it is not an offence to pick the “Four F’s”; fruit, foliage, fungi or flowers which are growing wild if they are for personal use and not for sale. But in many parts of the country, where foraging was previously legal it is now being banned. The reason? What used to be a niche countryside pursuit is now a burgeoning trend leading to increasing environmental concerns.
So here’s a question I continually struggle with as a wild food educator. Is it ethical to continue to teach growing numbers of people to identify and harvest wild foods and medicines if they don’t have anywhere to go to legally harvest those plants? Where all these newly enthused foragers with a recipe for dandelion pesto in hand are supposed to go?
Like most responsible wild food educators, I discuss the tenets of ethical and sustainable wildcrafting, i.e. do no harm, tread lightly, take little, give back, never harvest rare plants, be respectful of unceded territories, land, foods, sacred plants of local First Peoples – but is it enough? Because the most asked question I get from new wildcrafters is where can I go to forage? And here’s the moral rub. I know, despite my warnings about the necessity of obtaining permissions, many will inevitably end up harvesting illegally.
Plucking a few dandelions from the park seems harmless enough (yes I’ve done it myself) but it’s a slippery slope. Could this lead to a backlash as is already happening in the UK? Could hordes of foragers descend on the wilds, trampling delicate ecosystems and over-harvesting native plants?
This question is rarely addressed even though the answer shapes the future of wildcrafting itself. Because until we set aside safe and legal places for people to forage, we are setting the stage for exploitation and degradation in endangered ecosystems, and to the lands and plants of our First Peoples. I think it’s going to take a lot more than connecting with the “spirit of the land” and teaching the “in and outs” of ethical foraging enough to truly protect our natural environments.
This is why five years ago Gather Victoria attempted to launch a Community Supported Foraging Plan (CSFP), a coalition of wild food educators and local foragers that would a) lobby the City to recognize foraging as a valued resource within urban food systems b) grant designated pilot spaces in urban and municipal parks for public foraging c) create educational opportunities to learn about wild plants and sustainable ethical methods of harvest.
The way I saw it, Community Supported Foraging Plan addressed one of the biggest misconceptions about wild food foraging – that it necessitates taking to the “wilds” at all. Because as most wild food educators know, the vast majority of wild edible plants and medicines grow within already urbanized spaces and city parks. By encouraging foraging within urban parks (chosen in consultation with city naturalists) in already cultivated spaces, citizens can legally access some of the most nutritious and healing plants of history, all brimming with vital nutrients depleted in our modern food supply.
Many of these plants were introduced here by the early settlers, and have now colonized local landscapes. Removed at great cost (and often with toxic chemicals) as invasive weeds from our national, regional and local municipal parks. So … why can’t we just eat them instead?
This is already happening in the Pacific Northwest as many food security activists are looking to foraging to increase the resilience of their food supply. From Washington to Oregon many parks not only provide legal access to the bounty of freely available nutritious plants but actually teach foraging classes. One can find access to foraging friendly maps and Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest has been around for over a decade. Food grown is available to pick and be consumed by anyone who visits the park. Walks, talks and courses about foraging are also available.
In California, The Berkley Food Institute and Forage Berkley advocate for public policy “that increases the amount of free, fresh nutritious foods in cities, by stopping the use of herbicides on public lands and allowing foraging of invasive species on public lands; and by promoting the design of parks and public spaces that provide food and habitat for wildlife.
Inspired by these models, the Community Supported Foraging Plan would work to provide city residents with safe, legal access to the freely available nutritious plants growing in designated municipal greenspaces. This could provide several key benefits. It could help control the spread of invasive plants (by eating them) help strengthen local food security and perhaps even improve community health!
But the community-supported foraging plan ran into three main obstacles. Basically, it went like this – 1) legalities – if the city condoned eating wild plants they could be held liable if someone poisoned themselves 2) lack of resources, currently there were no departments or funding for wild food education to ensure people understood which plants were safe to consume 3) allowing wild edibles and medicines (otherwise known as weeds) to grow in municipal parks would be a violation of policies that mandate the removal of these plants by provincial law. (BC Weed Control Act).
All this demanded more time, lobbying and monetary resources than I had. It was time to pull back and rethink my approach. And it was pretty clear to me that until the public and we (as wild food foragers and educators) legitimize foraging as a vital part of urban food systems (along with community and boulevard gardens, urban orchards and farms) the plan didn’t have a hope in hell of ever becoming a reality.
But thank Goddess, a new solution soon presented itself to me – and it was right under my nose. I realized I could bypass all this red tape because I didn’t need to lobby the city to create new spaces for community foraging – because they already existed. It’s just that almost no one in the city, including most foragers, know they are there.
Unlike community garden allotments which provide plots for individual private use, common ground gardens provide public access to the foods and medicines growing within them. In urban areas, waiting lists for community gardens are incredibly long and common ground gardens give city residents access to shared food gardens maintained by a group of community volunteers, whose common ground – their interest in providing nourishing foods and medicinal plants for all neighbourhood residents – brings them together.
Jackie Robson (above) is one of the founders of the Wark St. Commons in the Quadra-Hillside area. She makes the point that in this inner-city neighbourhood, food security is an ongoing issue. “Green space is limited and community allotment gardens are few and far between. Because many families do not have their own gardens, The Wark St. Commons gives people access to fresh greens, fruit and berries, not to mention the many culinary and medicinal herbs they normally couldn’t find or afford.”
In my general neighbourhood, I was lucky enough to have three such parks nearby, the Wark St. Commons Garden, The People’s Apothecary Garden, and the Spring Ridge Commons. Here culinary and medicinal herbs, native berries, greens, blossoms, and fruits grow in abundance along with many wild edible herbs(weeds) like clover, nettles, hawthorn, milk thistle, St John’s Wort, dandelion, cleavers, plantain, chickweed, curly dock and garlic mustard. All free and legal to harvest – by anyone.
Today we see public green spaces as places to enjoy the beautiful scenery, not eat it. But the tradition of Common land or Common Ground grants the public the use of the “commons”—woods, ponds, fields and grazing grounds—to feed themselves.
So with the understanding that foraging in these gardens is perfectly legal, I unofficially launched a less ambitious version of my community-supported foraging plan. In cooperation with my local common ground gardens, I began to teach residents about the bounty of nutritious and delicious foods, medicines and wild edibles (aka weeds) growing for free in the heart of their neighbourhoods.
Along the way, I talked about the ethical and ecological issues involved in foraging, such as safety, sustainable harvest methods, respecting native ecosystems and the indigenous cultures of this land. And I emphasized the matter of legality – reminding them that beyond the borders of the garden, i.e. the rest of the park – the dandelions were out of bounds. And I encouraged everyone to write to city hall requesting access to public green spaces to create even more common ground gardens. And I encouraged them to get involved in caretaking for these spaces as well.
My hope was that as more and more people enjoyed the bounty of fresh free tasty and nutritious fruits and greens that community demand would grow. And voila, what would slowly come into being is a “community-supported foraging plan”. A network of public spaces in urban municipal parks where people can legally forage for wild plants. Yay!
Postscript April 2021
But alas, my rose coloured vision seems to be endangered in Victoria. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched one of the lushest and productive common ground gardens, home of countless herbs, berries, native edibles – The Spring Ridge Commons become a waste zone after being sold to School Board 61. Many of the fruit-bearing trees medlars, figs, autumn olive, elderberry will not survive another summer without water – which the new owners apparently cut off.
The Peoples Apothecary was also sold to the School Board 61 (despite community protest) and I pray that its future will not be similarly undermined, it hasn’t been looking too healthy. And also, the once verdant garden of the Wark Street Commons filled with countless varieties of herbs, berries and flowers was cleared to make room for a pollinator garden. Large elderberry trees and an autumn Olive were removed along with countless herbs such as Sweet Cicely, Mugwort, St. John Wort – many of which were pollinators already. Now, all that seems to be growing is chickweed. (Not that I have anything against chickweed! Delicious!)
It makes my heart grieve. It takes years to grow trees and gardens like these. All three of these gardens were my regular haunts. I attended the opening of the Bee Herb Garden at Spring Ridge Commons and participated in seasonal garden clean-ups, watered and planted herbs in the Wark St. Garden. I don’t understand how gardens full of food and medicinal plants could be so undervalued that they disappear without a whisper of community dissent? Surely I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed their bounty?
At a time when food prices are rising and space for growing food is limited, we should be treasuring these common ground gardens as valuable community food resources – as they were originally intended. This returns me to the subject of foraging in general, the right of the people to the “commons’. Without legal public spaces, foraging today is largely a private affair reserved for those privileged enough to have access to land.
But I believe wild foods and medicines should be a resource equally available to all. Yes, I believe in the importance of teaching ethical and sustainable harvest methods, but I also believe we need to legitimize wild food/foraging as a valuable food resource within localized food systems – and lobby those who hold the keys of access to public land.
As a wild food educator who is passionately committed to sharing the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits of reconnecting to nature through our birthright – food- I am frustrated by the lack of opportunities to do so. And it’s why I feel a personal ethical responsibility to help create spaces for ALL people to harvest a dandelion for dinner. So I’m planning to be putting my activist hat on again soon…
I’m hoping the newfound popularity of wild foods will spark a grassroots movement of people who demand access to public lands for foraging. I’m hoping it will be led by wild food educators who step forward to work with governing bodies to create legal, ecologically respectful and ethical community foraging spaces. Perhaps then “wild foods” could become part of an evolving “agri-hood” of community gardens, urban farms and food forests in which communities have the right to nourish themselves. Seems the future is ours to decide.
Here are a few links to explore ethical & sustainable wildcrafting. (If you know of some good ones that should be included here please let me know!)
- Exploring the opportunities and responsibilities of foraging on the West Coast
- Foragers encouraged to harvest wild foods and medicines sustainably around Vancouver
- Wildcrafting For Future Generations
- Ethical Foraging 101: What You Need to Know
- Wildcrafting: A “simple” life fraught with a host of complex ethical and practical considerations
- Wildcrafting Basics: Ethical Wildcrafting
- Wildcrafting Ethics
- STEWARDS OR PROFITEERS: SELLING THE WILD
- WILD CAKES FOR CAMOSSUNG: A PRAYER FOR RESTORING THE GARDEN